EYEWITNESS IN THE CRIMEA
The Crimea War Letters (1854-1856) of Lt. Col. George Frederick Dallas.
Edited byMichael Hargreave Mawson.
"I thought & still think it an unworthy thing to write cheerful letters & say nothing of the facts that you must know sooner or later … Nothing that England can now do can save the Army here." George Frederick Dallas, Cap. 46th Foot.
Published by Greenhill Books.
It began, as so many things do, with a death.
After a long and happy life, my grandmother died in the Spring of 1991. A few days later her nearest relations gathered at her home, prior to the funeral in her Parish church. My father and uncle, her only surviving children, were discussing what to do with those items of her property that had not been specifically left to anyone. Knowing of my interest in military history, my uncle said, "Michael must have the letters." "What letters?" said my father. "They're around here somewhere," said Uncle John, running his finger along the books in the bookcases that lined Granny's sitting room, "Ah! Got them!"
What my uncle had found was a collection of documents, including an old exercise book containing transcripts, obviously written in great haste, of a number of letters from my great-great-grandfather, dated between August, 1854 and August, 1856. With these transcripts was a single
original letter, and, best of all, two leather-bound books, containing neat manuscript copies of all the 137 letters written by Fred Dallas during the Crimean War, with corrections in a spidery hand that I later realised was that of Fred himself. As I read the letters in the days following my grandmother's funeral, I was astonished at their power to
call my ancestor back to life, and to evoke the sufferings and successes of the Crimean army.
Fred Dallas went to war as a junior officer of the 46th Regiment of Foot, and landed in the Crimea with the rest of Allied invasion force on the 14th September, 1854. Six days later was fought the Battle of the Alma, about which he wrote: "Our people marched deliberately without any
cover as protection up to a position which the Enemy had been fortifying for weeks, & supposed to be utterly impregnable." He went on, "I am not in spirits to write you a long account of anything, for a more dreadful position you cannot conceive than where our camp is placed, close to the field of Battle, dead and dying on every side."
Less than a month after Alma, Fred took part in the most famous battle of the war - the Battle of Balaklava. His descriptions of the Charge of the Light Brigade are vivid and powerful: "Lord Lucan gave orders to the Light Cavalry... to charge the whole Army of the Russians!, & to try & take their guns. They obeyed their order only too gallantly, & with Lord Cardigan at their head (by himself almost), riding as if down "Rotten Row", they charged up to the muzzles of the guns, under the most tremendous fire. They sabred the men at the guns, & took 26 guns! Of
course they could not hold them. The whole Russian Army closed on them, & they wheeled about to cut their way out... all we could see was the ground strewed with dead horses & men, & countless horses tearing about riderless. We were only 2.000 strong & consequently could not attack the enemy in the good position they were in, 20,000 in number. But we kept them in check all day, our men burning to avenge the poor Cavalry."
Whilst Fred was almost a spectator at Balaklava, the next battle of the war saw him "in the very worst of it". "I do not think "Guy Fawkes' day" was ever celebrated by more Gunpowder and fire... We found the Guards on the extreme right engaged with a large force of Russians on the brow of a hill... We immediately formed line, & set to work - here poor Torrens
fell badly wounded - the fire was very heavy. At last the enemy began to waver, & we took advantage of it & made a most splendid headlong Charge on them, pushing them down the steep side of the mountain, in utter confusion. The slaughter of them was here immense, for we charged right at them, & every man had shot away his 60 rounds (or nearly so) before we could get them to pull up. We then came leisurely back up the hill again, (of course scattered all over the side of it). When a few of us got nearly to the top from whence we had started, to our astonishment a most astounding fire opened upon us, from the very place we had come from. The men came up gaily, & we formed as we could, & with a mere handful returned the enemy's fire, as long as our ammunition lasted. We were placed, I should say 50 of us, with most of the Staff of the
Division, on a small sort of natural platform, about 10 yards from the Russian Infantry Regiment which had outflanked us..." Fred is being rather modest here - it transpires that in fact he grabbed the five men nearest him, and, with his sword in his hand, led them in an uphill charge against several thousand Russians! For his gallant actions at the Battle of Inkermann he was subsequently given a field promotion, and awarded the Orders of the Legion of Honour of France and of the Mejedie
Trench warfare became the order of the day after the battle of Inkermann had been won, and as the bitter Russian winter set in, Fred turned his thoughts to the privations that surrounded him, "The utmost suffering I have is... seeing the men hungry, starving & dying around me, & knowing that I can do nothing, & that those who could have prevented it all, (in great measure) stand idly by... Lord Raglan rode up on a sleek horse a day or two ago, & all he is reported to have remarked was that 'Artillery horses appear insufficiently clad.' God forgive him! Two months ago he could have got as many ships as he wished and loaded them with wood, with mules... with forage, with, in fact, every preparation for fighting against Winter, but no, nothing was done..."
Fred's letters offer far more than a vivid summary of the first of the "Modern" wars; they are suffused with insight, and filled with brief paragraphs that bring people and events to life. His reports on the casual heroism of his comrades only serve to highlight the horrors of war. "I am sorry to say that Colin Campbell of ours got hit in the trenches the other night. He escaped wonderfully: a grape shot (about the size of an orange) ran, as it were, along his back, tearing all his clothes, shirt and all, to little shreds, & inflicting merely a very large bruise or contusion. He was stooping at the time, or of course it would have killed him... I found him quietly sitting up drinking some
chocolate, thinking no more of his hurt than many would of a mosquito bite..." The uncompromising detail of these letters is consistently balanced by the humorous and colourful anecdotes inspired by the men in the Camp.
Eyewitness in the Crimea is available in bookshops now.
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